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Hands On: Magicka 2

A game about exploding

The first time I killed one of my teammates, it was an accident. The second time may have been an accident as well. The third time was definitely deliberate and after that, the relationship was one of mutual murdering.

Magicka 2 [official site] is a brilliant, challenging cooperative game about killing your friends.

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A quick recap first. Magicka the first hit like a bolt from the blue, and its intentionally cumbersome and ingenious elemental spellcasting system was loved by almost all who played with it. In a nutshell, Magicka's magic is about combinations – fire + shield = fireshield, earth + self = rock armour, death beam + water = direman's hose. To cast a spell, players input combos, much as if they were playing a beat 'em up, except every input has an immediately logical output.

In the heat of battle, fingers trip across keys and stumble onto new elemental cocktails, many of which are as dangerous to the wizards as to their enemies. Throwing an energy bubble over your allies just as they unleash a death beam causes the deadly ray to reflect back at the caster, exploding him.

Magicka is a game about exploding. It could have been the origin of the term “friendly fire”.

Creators Arrowhead parted company with Paradox, though not before releasing a new multiplayer game, The Showdown Effect (sadly overlooked, I feel, although possibly a little undercooked as well). They're now working on Helldivers and were the developers behind last year's Gauntlet revival, which had Magicka-style spellcasting for its Wizard character.

Magicka passed into the hands of Paradox North, where it transitioned from a cooperative adventure into a free-to-play team deathmatch game with some borrowings from the lane-pushing likes of Dota. It seemed natural to take the friendly fire and make it deliberately unfriendly, and Wizard Wars is an excellent variant of the original game.

Now, Magicka is heading back to its roots. Pieces Interactive's sequel continues the story where the original left off, following a team of colour-coded wizards through environments loosely inspired by Norse mythology. Tongues are firmly planted in cheeks, even (ESPECIALLY) when hapless wizards are reduced to chunks of meat, and returning characters include Vlad, who is still definitely not a vampire.

I played a small part of the campaign and two challenge maps, which see waves of enemies approaching with increasingly complex variation. The campaign section ended with a boss fight of sorts, in which we (eventually) worked out that the spawning monsters would never stop. The key to escaping was an environmental puzzle, which made clever use of specific elemental powers.

The challenge maps were the best part of the experience though and also the place where the new Artifacts came into play.

Artifacts, which are unlocked by playing through the story, allow players to fiddle with the game's settings. Many of them act as tools to customise the game's difficulty. It's possible to increase or decrease enemy health and speed, and the same can be done to the wizards. Dashing around with wizard speeds doubled should make things easier, and if all four players were competent it well might, but double speed can lead to double the disasters.

Individual elements can be buffed or weakened as well. Convert death magic into an instagib death ray, or reduce the damage that flames cause. With a few sliders and toggles, each challenge can be tweaked and overhauled. The weirder artifacts might be the most enjoyable. There's a twin set, one of which causes dying enemies to harm everything around them, while the other causes death to throw out an area effect healing spell.

Then there's teleportation. The most tricksy artifact I saw causes a wizard to teleport immediately to the location of any enemy that he/she kills. It changes the tactical approach hugely, reducing the potency of any magic that lays down sheets of damaging elements, because as soon as one enemy falls, the wizard that made the kill ends up in the middle of the carnage he/she caused.

On top of all that, there are artifacts that exist simply to entertain. A laughter track. Bloated wizard models, huge knock-backs for corpses, gratuitously gory deaths. Ludicrous gibs of the most splendid and harmless kind.

The new ideas and tightly designed maps didn't stick in my mind as much as the sheer pleasure of playing Magicka again. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy the spell system and the silliness of the world. If the netcode is strong from day one this time around – and there's no reason to suspect it won't be – Magicka 2 might end up being my most played cooperative game of the year.

Wizard Wars, even with its reduced bank of combinations, has been a great training tool. When talking about the farce and the deaths (accidental and otherwise) that pepper a session of Magicka, it's easy to ignore how clever the spell system is. A good player can perform efficiently, almost uncannily so given the bumbling nature of the wizards, and with the right Artifacts in place, Magicka 2 should offer a stern test of elemental mastery.

If the studio can provide a robust challenge that squeezes the best out of Magicka's systems, while also allowing for experimentation and silliness, they'll hit an incredibly sweet spot. The slice I've seen suggests they're on the right path – the team of four I played with found time to discover the wonder of healing mines, the horror of creepily animated floating daggers and the tension as the final surviving wizard attempts to stay alive while his resurrect ability recharges.

That last feeling is the key. Tension. Magicka is an extraordinarily silly game, but it had us perched on the edge of our seats, shouting instructions as we tried to survive wave after wave of preposterous odds. If it can sustain that sensation for more than the couple of hours I've spent with it so far, it'll be fantastic.

(It's worth noting that I played on a PS4 controller. I expected to struggle but the controls map well, with elements activated using the face buttons, with the second tier requiring a push of a trigger at the same time. Controller support will hopefully open up opportunities for comfortable local co-op.)

Magicka 2 is out on May 26th.

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